• A submission to a photo competition in China encouraging women to flaunt their natural armpits. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Armpit hair is still a cause of great alarm for many, apparently. But why are we still talking about it?
By
Georgina Cooke

15 Mar 2016 - 8:19 AM  UPDATED 15 Mar 2016 - 5:28 PM

Earlier this month, a touching photo of Leonard DiCaprio was circulated on Facebook, but if you saw it, you may not have immediately recognised the blonde subject as being the recent Academy Award winner (congrats btw, Leo).

The image itself, taken in 1976, has a universal quality to it: baby DiCaprio sits atop his mother’s shoulders, who has reached up to hold his hand while his father helps prop him up. All three are smiling. It's an intimate moment; the young family’s joy radiating from the photo, but sadly, many were distracted by another 'shocking' detail.

“Leo, tell your mom [sic] to shave those pits brother,” William McDuffie Jr. wrote.

“I am sorry but the armpits are disgusting! If you disagree then you probably don't shave your legs, or wax, or no makeup and don't take care of your hair, clothes, weight or what you look like,” Dee Dee Phillips-Valentino opined.

“First thing I saw was that smelly hippie’s pit hair,” Jason McCrum astutely observed.

And so it went for over 12,000 comments, the bulk of which focused on Leo’s German mother’s underarms as the bizarre debate over whether women are allowed to have a say in regards to the removal of their own body hair once again bubbled over *sigh*.

Dr Ruth Barcan of the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney says the reason for the shock is because we've become too used to images of smooth, sexualised bodies; hair has come to be seen as abject.

"There's obviously a link between the images people see and tastes people form," she says.

"Very much in our culture, body hair has come to be associated with dirt - it's seen as unhygienic, and removing body hair [is seen] as making the body cleaner and neater. We have a taste for sharp and tightly defined body boundaries."

While there is a long history of hairless women in art, it wasn't truly on the female radar until the early 20th century - coincidentally, it arrived around the same time as the sleeveless dress became in vogue - but it wouldn’t be until the sixties and seventies that it would rise as a hairy political issue, so to speak.

As women became emboldened by a new wave of feminism, growing out one's armpit hair became an expression of ownership of self and, more broadly, a right to live one’s life free of the constraints of patriarchal expectation.

Professor of Women and Gender Studies Breanne Fahs at Arizona State University explored this idea of female underarm hair as disrupting a norm, resulting in displays of disgust or rejection (case in point: Leo's mum), in her 2014 article for the Psychology of Women Quarterly, declaring that it is still "a cultural marker of deviance".

“Conversations about body hair hold up a mirror to otherwise unseen aspects of gender and sexuality, making the seemingly benign ... suddenly endowed with the power to unsettle and transform,” she says.

And it's this notion of an embodied act of defiance that underpinned activist and model Ollie Henderson's own decision to grow out her armpit hair.

“When I first started growing out my armpit hair it was definitely an act of youthful rebellion, telling the world that I don’t have to be the woman you expect me to be,” Henderson says. “It was a reclamation of my own autonomy.”

“Now I grow it out because the tedium of waxing or shaving are bothersome, but also because it associates me to subcultures that I wish to identify with, more precisely, as a politicised alternative queer.”

 

She joins a long list of stars who have proudly grown out their armpit hair in the name of making a statement.

In China last year, a group of feminists put a call out for women to flaunt their natural armpits to highlight double standards in gender equality as part of a photo competition.

"Women should have the right to decide how to deal with their bodies, including small details like armpit hair," feminist Xiao Meili said.

"You can choose to shave it, but you shouldn't be forced to do so under the pressure of stereotypes."

But Henderson also acknowledged the stigma that comes with identifying with such stereotypes or subcultures is exactly the reason so many women opt to shave or wax - it's estimated that, at the turn of this century, up to 97 per cent of Australian women shaved their legs and underarms.

“The associations we have with armpit hair are heavily rooted in the perception that our society is binary gendered," she says.

And, as the photo of Leo's mum highlighted, it's pretty clear that some people are still grappling with how to make sense of women who choose to embrace less traditional ways of 'doing' gender. Most people interviewed in Fahs' article who were against the practice of growing out their armpit hair said it was because it demarcated ideals about sexuality, race or intellect with which they did not wish to be linked.

"Body hair represents an avenue into tougher and more painful discussions about gender, bodies, power, social control, invisibility of patriarchy ... [and] the fusions between heterosexism and sexism," Fahs says.

"[It] is seen as a sign of masculinity and therefore undesirable for women," Henderson agrees. "Women are faced with greater physical expectation as we are valued so highly for our bodies over our intellect or skill."

"I personally love dressing as a sophisticated woman and shocking people with my armpit hair as it is something that is not usually associated with sophistication. Breaking the status quo is the only way to change it," she says.

"We're at a point now where we're so visceral about disgust ... [and] it is about disgust, [armpit hair] will only come back if the right subculture adopts it and makes it cool again," Dr Barcan says, likening it to the renaissance of beards for men.

And Henderson may well be the voice of that subculture.

Making informed and conscious choices about performing femininity, or, at the very least, being more open minded about it, rather than defaulting to emotionally-charged responses, is surely a starting point as far as changing the conversation goes, Henderson believes.

"Your body is your own choice but one should always be aware of the decision they are making. Removing body hair is something that women don’t often question. If your reasoning for removing your body hair is along the lines of 'I don’t want to look like a man' or 'I want men to find me attractive' consider what is is to be a woman."